Page 67

“I’ll tell ye this, mo duinne. One day Jack Randall will die at my hands. And when he is dead, I shall send back that book to the mother of Alex MacGregor, with word that her son is avenged.”

The air of tension was broken by the sudden reappearance of Jenny, now resplendent in blue silk and her own lace kertch, holding a large box of worn red morocco leather.

“Jamie, the Currans are come, and Willie Murray and the Jeffries. You’d best go down and have a second breakfast with them—I’ve put out fresh bannocks and salt herring, and Mrs. Crook’s doing fresh jam cakes.”

“Oh, aye. Claire, come down when you’re ready.” Rising hastily, he paused long enough to gather me up for a brief but thorough kiss, and disappeared. His footsteps clattered down the first flight of stairs, slowing on the second to the more sedate pace suitable to a laird’s entrance, as he neared the ground floor.

Jenny smiled after him, then turned her attention to me. Placing the box on the bed, she threw back the lid, revealing a jumbled array of jewels and baubles. I was surprised to see it; it seemed unlike the neat, orderly Jenny Murray whose iron hand kept the household running smoothly from dawn to dusk.

She stirred a finger through the bright clutter, then as though picking up my thought, looked up and smiled at me.

“I keep thinking I must sort all these things one day. But when I was small, my mother would let me rummage in her box sometimes, and it was like finding magic treasure—I never knew what I’d pick up next. I suppose I think if it were all orderly, the magic would go, somehow. Daft, no?”

“No,” I said, smiling back at her. “No, it isn’t.”

We rummaged slowly through the box, holding the cherished bits and pieces of four generations of women.

“That was my grandmother Fraser’s,” Jenny said, holding up a silver brooch. It was in the shape of a fret-worked crescent moon, a small single diamond shining above the tip like a star.

“And this—” She pulled out a slender gold band, with a ruby surrounded by brilliants. “That’s my wedding ring. Ian spent half a year’s salary on it, though I told him he was foolish to do it.” The fond look on her face suggested that Ian had been anything but foolish. She polished the stone on the bosom of her dress and admired it once more before replacing it in the box.

“I’ll be happy once the babe is born,” she said, patting her bulge with a grimace. “My fingers are so swollen in the mornings I can scarcely do up my laces, let alone wear my rings.”

I caught a strange nonmetallic gleam in the depths of the box, and pointed. “What’s that?”

“Oh, those,” she said, dipping into the box again. “I’ve never worn them; they don’t suit me. But you could wear them—you’re tall and queenly, like my mother was. They were hers, ye ken.”

They were a pair of bracelets. Each made from the curving, almost-circular tusk of a wild boar, polished to a deep ivory glow, the ends capped with silver tappets, etched with flowered tracery.

“Lord, they’re gorgeous! I’ve never seen anything so…so wonderfully barbaric.”

Jenny was amused. “Aye, that they are. Someone gave them to Mother as a wedding gift, but she never would say who. My father used to tease her now and then about her admirer, but she wouldna tell him, either, just smiled like a cat that’s had cream to its supper. Here, try them.”

The ivory was cool and heavy on my arm. I couldn’t resist stroking the deep yellow surface, grained with age.

“Aye, they suit ye,” Jenny declared. “And they go wi’ that yellow gown, as well. Here are the earbobs—put these on, and we’ll go down.”

Murtagh was seated at the kitchen table, industriously eating ham off the end of his dirk. Passing behind him with a platter, Mrs. Crook dexterously bent and slid three fresh hot bannocks onto his plate, hardly breaking her stride.

Jenny was bustling to and fro, preparing and overseeing. Pausing in her progress, she peered over Murtagh’s shoulder at his rapidly emptying plate.

“Don’t stint yourself, man,” she remarked. “There’s another hog in the pen, after all.”

“Begrudge a kinsman a bite, do ye?” he asked, not interrupting his chewing.

“Me?” Jenny put both hands on her hips. “Heavens, no! After all, ye’ve only had the four helpings so far. Mrs. Crook,” she turned to call to the departing housekeeper, “when you’ve done wi’ the bannocks, fix this starveling man a bowl of parritch to fill in the chinks with. We dinna want him fainting on the doorstep, ye ken.”

When Murtagh saw me standing in the doorway, he promptly choked on a bite of ham.

“Mmmphm,” he said, by way of greeting, after Jenny had pounded him helpfully on the back.

“Nice to see you too,” I replied, sitting down opposite him. “Thank you, by the way.”

“Mmphm?” The question was muffled by half a bannock, spread with honey.

“For fetching my things from the Castle.”

“Mmp.” He dismissed any notion of thanks with a wave that ended in a reach for the butter dish.

“I brought your wee bits of plant and such as well,” he said, with a jerk of the head at the window. “Out in the yard, in my saddlebags.”

“You’ve brought my medicine box? That’s wonderful!” I was delighted. Some of the medicinal plants were rare, and had taken no little trouble to find and prepare properly.

“But how did you manage?” I asked. Once I had recovered from the horror of the witchcraft trial, I often wondered how the occupants of the Castle had taken my sudden arrest and escape. “I hope you didn’t have any difficulty.”

“Och, no.” He took another healthy bite, but waited until it had made its leisurely way down his throat before replying further.

“Mrs. Fitz had them put away, like, packed up in a box already. I went to her at the first, ye ken, for I wasna sure what reception I’d get.”

“Very sensible. I don’t imagine Mrs. Fitz would scream at sight of you,” I agreed. The bannocks were steaming gently in the cool air, and smelt heavenly. I reached for one, the heavy boar’s-tooth bracelets clinking together on my wrist. I saw Murtagh’s eyes on them and adjusted them so he could see the engraved silver end pieces.

“Aren’t they lovely?” I said. “Jenny said they were her mother’s.”

Murtagh’s eyes dropped to the bowl of parritch that Mrs. Crook had thrust unceremoniously under his nose.

“They suit ye,” he mumbled. Then, returning suddenly to the earlier subject, he said, “No, she wouldna summon help against me. I was well acquent’ wi’ Glenna FitzGibbons, some time ago.”

“Oh, a long-lost love of yours, was she?” I teased, enjoying the incongruous thought of him entwined in amorous embrace with the ample Mrs. Fitz.

Murtagh glanced up coldly from his parritch.

“That she wasna, and I’ll thank ye to keep a civil tongue when ye speak of the lady. Her husband was my mother’s brother. And she was sore grieved for ye, I’ll ha’ ye to know.”

I lowered my eyes, abashed, and reached for the honey to cover my embarrassment. The stone jar had been set in a pot of boiling water to liquefy the contents, and it was comfortingly warm to the touch.

“I’m sorry,” I said, drizzling the sweet golden fluid over the bannock, watching carefully so as not to spill it. “I wondered, you know, what she felt like, when…when I…”

“They didna realize at the first ye were gone,” the little man said matter-of-factly, ignoring my apology. “When ye didna come in to dinner, they thought maybe you’d stayed late in the fields and gone up to your bed without eating; your door was closed. And the next day, when there was all the outcry over the taking of Mistress Duncan, no one thought to look for ye. There was no mention of you, only of her, when the news came, and in all the excitement, no one thought to look for ye.”

I nodded thoughtfully. No one would have missed me, save those seeking medical treatment; I had spent most of my time in Colum’s library while Jamie was away.

“What about Colum?” I asked. I was more than idly curious; had he really planned it, as Geilie thought?

Murtagh shrugged. He scanned the table for further victuals, apparently spotted nothing to his liking, and leaned back, folding his hands comfortably over his lean midriff.

“When he had the news from the village, he had the gates closed at once, and forbade anyone from the Castle to go down, for fear of being caught up in the moil.” He leaned further back, eyeing me speculatively.

“Mrs. Fitz thought to find ye, the second day. She said that she asked all the maids if they’d laid eyes on ye. No one had, but one of the girls said she thought perhaps ye’d gone to the village—maybe you’d taken shelter in a house there.” One of the girls, I thought cynically. The one that knew bloody well where I was.

He belched softly, not bothering to stifle the sound.

“I heard Mrs. Fitz turned the Castle upside down, then, and made Colum send down a man to the village, once she was sure ye werena to be found. And when they learned what had happened.…” A faint look of amusement lighted the dark face.

“She didna tell me everything, but I gathered she made Himself’s life more of a misery to him than it usually is, naggin’ at him to send down and free ye by force of arms—and not the least bit of use, him arguin’ that it had gone well beyond the point where he could do that, and now it was in the hands o’ the examiners, and one thing and another. It must ha’ been something to see,” he said reflectively, “twa wills like that, set one against the other.”

And in the end, it seemed, neither had either triumphed nor given way. Ned Gowan, with his lawyer’s gift for compromise, had found the way between them, by offering to go himself to the trial, not as representative of the laird, but as an independent advocate.

“Did she think I might be a witch?” I asked curiously. Murtagh snorted briefly.

“I’ve yet to see the auld woman believes in witches, nor the young one, neither. It’s men think there must be ill-wishes and magic in women, when it’s only the natural way of the creatures.”

“I begin to see why you’ve never married,” I said.

“Do ye, then?” He pushed back his chair abruptly and rose, pulling the plaid forward over his shoulders.

“I’ll be off. Gie my respects to the laird,” he said to Jenny, who reappeared from the front hall, where she had been greeting tenants. “He’ll be busy, I’ve nae doubt.”

Jenny handed him a large cloth sack, tied in a knot at the mouth, and plainly holding enough provisions for a week.

“A wee bite for the journey home,” she said, dimpling at him. “Might last ye at least out of sight o’ the house.”

He tucked the knot of the sack snugly into his belt and nodded briefly, turning toward the door.

“Aye,” he said, “and if not, ye’ll see the corbies gatherin’ just beyond the rise, come to pick my bones.”

“A lot of good they’d get from it,” she answered cynically, eyeing his scrawny frame. “I’ve seen more sound flesh on a broomstick.”

Murtagh’s dour face remained unchanged, but a faint gleam showed in his eye, nonetheless.

“Oh, aye?” he said. “Weel, I’ll tell ye, lass…” The voices passed down the hall, mingling in amiable insult and argument, vanishing at last in the echoes of the front hall.

I sat at the table for a moment longer, idly caressing the warm ivory of Ellen MacKenzie’s bracelets. At the far-off slam of the door, I shook myself and stood up to take my place as the Lady of Lallybroch.

Usually a busy place, on Quarter Day the manor house simply bristled with activity. Tenants came and went all day. Many came only long enough to pay their rents; some stayed all day, wandering about the estate, visiting with friends, taking refreshment in the parlor. Jenny, blooming in blue silk, and Mrs. Crook, starched in white linen, flitted back and forth between kitchen and parlor, overseeing the two maidservants, who staggered to and fro under enormous platters of oatcake, fruitcake, “crumbly,” and other sweets.

Jamie, having introduced me with ceremony to the tenants present in dining room and parlor, then retired into his study with Ian, to receive the tenants singly, to confer with them over the needs of the spring planting, to consult over the sale of wool and grain, to note the activities of the estate, and to set things in order for the next quarter of the year.

I puttered cheerfully about the place, visiting with tenants, lending a hand with the refreshments when needed, sometimes just drifting into the background to watch the comings and goings.

Recalling Jamie’s promise to the old woman by the millpond, I waited with some curiosity for the arrival of Ronald MacNab.

He came shortly past noon, riding a tall, slip-jointed mule, with a small boy clinging to his belt behind. I viewed them covertly from the parlor door, wondering just how accurate his mother’s assessment had been.

I decided that while “drunken sot” might be overstating things slightly, Grannie MacNab’s general perceptions were acute. Ronald MacNab’s hair was long and greasy, carelessly tied back with twine, and his collar and cuffs were grey with dirt. While surely a year or two younger than Jamie, he looked at least fifteen years older, the bones of his face submerged in bloat, small grey eyes dulled and bloodshot.

As for the child, he also was scruffy and dirty. Worse, so far as I was concerned, he slunk along behind his father, keeping his eyes on the floor, cringing when Ronald turned and spoke sharply to him. Jamie, who had come to the door of his study, saw it too, and I saw him exchange a sharp look with Jenny, bringing a fresh decanter in answer to his call.

She nodded imperceptibly and handed over the decanter. Then, taking the child firmly by the hand, she towed him toward the kitchen, saying, “Come along wi’ me now, laddie. I believe we’ve a crumbly or two going wantin’. Or what about a slice of fruitcake?”

Jamie nodded formally to Ronald MacNab, standing aside as the man went into the study. Reaching out to shut the door, Jamie caught my eye and nodded toward the kitchen. I nodded back and turned to follow Jenny and young Rabbie.

I found them engaged in pleasant converse with Mrs. Crook, who was ladling punch from the big cauldron into a crystal bowl. She tipped a bit into a wooden cup and offered it to the lad, who hung back, eyeing her suspiciously, before finally accepting it. Jenny went on chatting casually to the lad as she loaded platters, receiving little more than grunts in return. Still, the half-wild little creature seemed to be relaxing a bit.

“Your sark’s a bit grubby, lad,” she observed, leaning forward to turn back the collar. “Take it off, and I’ll give it a bit of a wash before ye go.” “Grubby” was a gross understatement, but the boy pulled back defensively. I was behind him, though, and at a gesture from Jenny, grabbed him by the arms before he could dart away.

He kicked and yowled, but Jenny and Mrs. Crook closed in on him as well, and between the three of us, we peeled the filthy shirt off his back.

“Ah.” Jenny drew in her breath sharply. She was holding the boy’s head firmly under one arm, and the scrawny back was fully exposed. Welts and scabs scored the flesh on either side of the knobby backbone, some freshly healed, some so old as to be only faded shadows lapping the prominent ribs. Jenny took a good grip on the back of the boy’s neck, speaking soothingly to him as she released his head. She jerked her head in the direction of the hall, looking at me.

“You’d better tell him.”

I knocked tentatively at the study door, holding a plate of honeyed oatcakes as excuse. At Jamie’s muffled bidding, I opened the door and went in.

My face as I served MacNab must have been sufficient, for I didn’t have to ask to speak privately with Jamie. He stared meditatively at me for a moment, then turned back to his tenant.

“Well then, Ronnie, that will do for the grain allotment. There’s the one other thing I meant to speak wi’ you about, though. You’ve a likely lad named Rabbie, I understand, and I’m needing a boy of that size to help in the stables. Would ye be willing for him to come?” Jamie’s long fingers played with a goosequill on the desk. Ian, seated at a smaller table to one side, propped his chin on his fists, staring at MacNab with frank interest.

MacNab glowered belligerently. I thought he had the irritable resentment of a man who isn’t drunk but wishes he were.

“No, I’ve need of the lad,” he said curtly.

“Mm.” Jamie lounged back in his chair, hands folded across his middle. “I’d pay ye for his services, of course.”

The man grunted and shifted in his chair.

“My mother’s been at ye, eh? I said no, and I meant no. The lad’s my son, and I’ll deal wi’ him as I see fit. And I see fit to keep him to hame.”

Jamie eyed MacNab thoughtfully, but turned his attention back to the ledgers without further argument.

Late in the afternoon, as the tenants repaired to the warmer reaches of pantry and parlor for refreshment before departing, I spotted Jamie from the window, strolling in leisurely fashion toward the pigshed, arm slung about the scruffy MacNab in comradely style. The pair disappeared behind the shed, presumably to inspect something of agricultural interest, and reappeared within a minute or two, coming toward the house.

Jamie’s arm was still about the shorter man’s shoulders, but seemed now to be supporting him. MacNab’s face was an unhealthy grey, slicked with sweat, and he walked very slowly, seeming unable to straighten up all the way.

“Weel, that’s good, then,” Jamie remarked cheerfully as they came within earshot. “Reckon your missus will be glad of the extra money, eh, Ronald? Ah, here’s your animal for you—fine-looking beast, is he no?” The moth-eaten mule that had brought the MacNabs to the farm shambled out of the yard where it had been enjoying the hospitality of the estate. A wisp of hay still protruded from the corners of its mouth, jerking irregularly as the beast chewed.

Jamie gave MacNab a hand under the foot to assist him to his seat; much-needed help, by the look of it. MacNab did not speak or wave in response to Jamie’s voluble “God-speeds” and “safe journeys,” but only nodded in a dazed way as he left the yard at a walk, seemingly intent on some secret trouble that absorbed his attention.

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